Podcast below, narrated by the author, actor Bill Paterson:
The lockdown, current obsessions and a significant birthday brought some memories bubbling to the surface.
Fifty years ago, in 1970, the Glasgow Citizens Theatre for Youth devised and performed a play for young people called, very succinctly, The Slave Trade
. It was one of my first proper paying jobs and from our base at that wondrous theatre in the Gorbals we toured school halls from Paisley to Cumbernauld and all points in between. Three performances a day to audiences of 11-year-olds. For its time, and for its audience, it was a stark and unsentimental look at the brutalities of the triangular slave trade between Britain, West Africa and the Caribbean, and the sufferings it inflicted on millions of black men and women. Also, for its time, it won't surprise you to know that we attempted to do this without having a single black face in our cast of five actors.
In our show, the British apex of the triangle was represented by the city of Bristol. That city bore the full brunt of our outrage at the immoral yet lucrative trade that helped build its prosperity. Bristol and, almost by implication, England was the villain.
18th-century Scotland, and particularly Glasgow and Edinburgh, were innocent bystanders. Never mentioned.
Although we daily passed down streets with names like Jamaica, Virginia, Tobago, Glassford, and Buchanan, it never crossed our minds to research and portray the stories behind these names and their hidden connection to human trafficking and suffering. We had cheerfully accepted the myth that Glasgow's 18th-century wealth and expansion had been brought to us by a group of merchants known, almost affectionately, as 'The Tobacco Lords'. These respected and powerful worthies had imported tobacco and sugar from the Caribbean and the American colonies and selflessly laid the foundations of the city's commercial growth in later years.
In our naivety, we must have assumed that they simply sent off a postal order for a consignment of Golden Virginia and two or three months later the unsullied goods were delivered to a warehouse in Port Glasgow or on the Broomielaw. Like today's online deliveries, we didn't think much about those trapped amidst the nuts and bolts of that commerce.
We certainly didn't think of their 'lordships' possible involvement in the cruel slave labour necessary to actually plant and harvest those commodities. After all, wasn't that dirty business organised from Bristol?
Despite our best intentions our little show was complicit in quietly separating Scotland from the reality of the century's slave trade.
In this benighted year of 2020, those 11-year-olds in our audiences will now be approaching pension age and many, like me, will have never questioned that assumption until recent years. Some of them might even be the proud owners of a wee pied-à-terre in The Merchant City, that concocted re-branding ploy for the grid of streets named after many of those tobacco dealers. When Glasgow welcomed that brand image as recently as the 1980s, it showed how ignorant we remained of the underbelly of the city's commerce. This was the Glasgow that was miles better but was still out and proud about its Tobacco Lords. True, the new name successfully rescued the area from neglect, but from the start it never felt right.
These days something more gruesomely accurate might be demanded. We can no longer be quite so innocent of what was done to lay the foundations of The Merchant City.
Perhaps best to reinstate its lovely old name of Candleriggs because, as every news bulletin tells us, names have become important again.
Many years later, I had another tiny brush with Scotland's involvement in the slave trade in the film Amazing Grace
, about the life and struggles of William Wilberforce.
I played Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville, often known as the 'uncrowned king of Scotland' during the time of Pitt the Younger. Dundas paid lip service to the abolition of slavery, but his protection of vested interests actively delayed Pitt and Wilberforce's anti-slavery legislation. In one crucial scene, Dundas persuaded the House of Commons to hold fire on the abolition act and only introduce it 'gradually'. His broad Scots brogue would have made that word ring round the chamber and it kept millions enslaved for a further 15 years.
His statue towers over St Andrews Square and we could all name several Dundas and Melville streets in towns and cities all over Scotland. Not to mention a long-demolished bus station.
Although there are calls for his removal from that column, at 150 feet above the gardens it might as well be Oor Wullie up there. Better, I think, to inform readers at ground level of Henry Dundas's real impact on our history.
The urge to rebrand every single street name with a dodgy pedigree could be a never-ending and constantly shape-shifting task. I'm hoping that someone is developing an app that can put these names into context. At a click, we need never ask again 'Who was Glassford? Who was Buchanan? Who was Dundas?', and be told 'Oh, they were just some old Scottish worthies. They meant no harm'.
Bill Paterson is an actor locked-down in London